The Romans Arrive

Mars - God of War

York’s history truly begins with the Romans.

The city was founded in about AD 71 when the 5,000 men of the Ninth Legion marched from Lincoln and set up camp.

Eboracum, as the Romans called York, was born.

More than a quarter of a century had passed from the Romans establishing a province in southern Britain to their arrival in York.  So what prompted the move north?

It seems a royal love triangle may be the unlikely answer.  Northern England at the time was largely populated by the Brigantes, a loose confederation of Celtic tribal groups. 

Their Queen, Cartimandua, favoured working with the Romans, unlike her estranged husband Venutius.  According to the first-century historian Tacitus, when they separated Venutius  first took up arms against the Queen and then against her Roman protectors.  These skirmishes led to the Romans building fortifications on the frontier between their province and Brigantes, including a fort near Rotherham.

When Cartimandua took her husband’s former armour bearer as her lover, the conflicts escalated.  The queen was captured by Venutius’s forces and only rescued after fierce fighting in AD69.

It was time for the invaders to impose their authority on the troublesome northerners, and in around AD71, the Roman Governor of Britain Quintus Petilius Cerealis led his troops northwards from Lincoln to invade the lands of the Brigantes.

Why York?

If anywhere exemplifies the Romans’ skill at identifying the perfect site for a fortress, York is it.

When the Ninth Legion arrived in what was to become Eboracum there wasn’t much to see.  No evidence has been found for a permanent native settlement in the heart of York prior to the Romans, so they would most likely have found before them little more than meadowland.  Within a few generations they would have transformed unromantic countryside into the capital of the north.

York had undoubted advantages for the task in hand.  It was the ideal spot to launch attacks against Brigantian resistance in the North York Moors and the Pennine valleys.  The site might also have lain on the boundary between the Brigantes and the Parisi, another tribe who lived to the East – making it a sort of neutral territory from which to supervise the natives.

Being the spot where the river Foss joins the river Ouse gives York an obvious strategic appeal.  Men and supplies could be transported from the North Sea to the settlement via the Ouse.

York also offered ease of land transport.  It sits on a ridge which the Romans used it as their main approach to the city.  This route is still largely followed by the main road, the A64, today.

The Romans chose to site their fortress not on the higher land but down between the two rivers.  What they lost in height they gained by the defensive advantage of having the rivers on both sides.  Besides, it stood on a slightly raised plateau which would have been more prominent in Roman times when rivers were as much as three metres lower than they are today.

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